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Futurist Ethics of Immanence
Melanie Swan   Jun 6, 2014   Broader Perspective  

The ethics of the future could likely shift to one of immanence. In philosophy, immanence means situations where everything comes from within a system, world, or person, as opposed to transcendence, where there are externally-determined specifications.

The traditional models of ethics have generally been transcendent in the sense that there are pre-specified ideals posed from some point outside of an individual’s own true sense of being.

The best anyone can ever hope to achieve is regaining the baseline of the pre-specified ideal (Figure 1). Measuring whether someone has reached the ideal is also problematic tends to be imposed externally. (This is also an issue in artificial intelligence projects; judgments of intelligence are imposed externally).

 Figure 1: Rethinking Ethics from 1.0 Traditional to 2.0 Immanence.

There has been progression in ethics models, moving from act-based to agent-based to now situation-based. Act-based models are based on actions (the Kantian categorical imperative vs utilitarianism (the good of the many) or consequentialism (the end justifies the means). Agent-based models hold that the character of the agent should be predictive of behavior (dispositionist).

Now social science experimentation has validated a situation-based model (the actor performs according to the situation (i.e., and could behave in different ways depending on the situation)). However all of these models are still transcendent; they are in the form of externally pre-specified ideals.

Moving to a true futurist ethics that supports freedom, empowerment, inspiration, and creative expression, it is necessary to espouse ethics models of immanence (Figure 1). In an ethics of immanence, the focus is the agent, where an important first step is tuning in to true desires (Deleuze) and one’s own sense of subjective experience (Bergson). Expanding the range of possible perceptions, interpretations, and courses of action is critical. This could be achieved by improved mechanisms for eliciting, optimizing, and managing values, desires, and biases.

As social models progress, a futurist ethics should move from what can be a limiting ethics 1.0 of judging behavior against pre-set principles to the ethics 2.0 of creating a life that is affirmatory and expansive. 

Melanie Swan, MBA, is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. Ms. Swan, principal of the MS Futures Group, is a philosopher, science and technology futurist, and options trader.


Why do I find it disconcerting that a hedge fund manager proposes internally-derived “values, desires, and biases” as a basis for deriving ethics?

Musing… What would an ethical hedge fund look like? How could you tell?

I’m trying to be serious here: I don’t understand on what basis one could describe the behaviour of, say, an AI system as being ‘ethical’ if it were derived from it’s “values, desires, and biases” if these themselves were not in some way derived from or bounded by an externally-imposed ethic.

I’m thinking Asimov’s laws of robotics here.

Transcendence does not require external determination of the ideal at all.  It requires transcending current limitations.  I think transcendence as transhumanists and singularitarians use the term is not at all about the source of ethical ideal being something transcendent to self.  So the article seems to start from a shaky or at least not very relevant premise for an H+ audience.

The article also does not discuss what Ethics is for or how it is grounded in reality.  Reality itself is the grounding for a rational ethics.  Whether reality is viewed as outside the self or not seems to be something some people have some trouble with.  But obviously self and reality are inseparable. 

The article seems to me to leave room for saying that ethics is a matter of subjective opinion from within the [mysterious] self.  I doubt this was intended but it seems to leave room for this view.

The terminology used in the post is indeed a bit confusing.
In philosophy there is a categorical difference between the term transcendental which means relating to spiritual or non-physical realm, and transcendent which means beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience (dictionary definitions). I guess (based on context) that though the author uses the second term she actually meant to use the first term, pointing that historical ethical values used to come mostly as religious precepts or purely idealistic with little or no relation to living systems, societies or actual intelligent agents in actual situations. Normally, it is the term transcendental and not transcendent that is opposed to immanence.

Immanent ethics does not necessarily mean subjective and subjective does not necessarily mean mysterious. Having a singular point of view and acting upon it have a strong evolutionary grounding.

I would add that universal (and transcendental) ethical precepts hardly make any sense without context and context can often be uniquely interpreted. It is true that not all unique interpretations are justifiable from an inter-subjective consensual point of view. This why society does tend to regulate and constrain the behaviors of its members.

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